Have you ever kept something from your partner because you were afraid of how they might react? Maybe you were afraid they’d make fun of you, criticize you, or tell you that you shouldn’t feel the way you’re feeling.
If this resonates, you’re not alone. As humans, we want to protect ourselves from hurt and pain, and sometimes that results in reactions that keep us from deepening our relationship with our partner.
But, in order to develop a closer relationship with our partner, we need to do the work to foster emotional safety.
What is emotional safety?
Emotional safety means that partners feel comfortable with being authentic, sharing thoughts, feelings, and ideas, and expressing issues without fear of being put down, shut down, ridiculed, criticized, or told to be, act, or feel different.
Here are 8 ways to enhance emotional safety in your relationship.
Use “I” statements.
This is the formula for “I” statements: “I feel” + emotion + when you do x + because + what I need is.
When discussing a relational issue, it’s common for couples to want to start a sentence with “you are…” or “you did…” However, this blaming language will likely put our partner on the defensive.
Using an “I” statement allows us to take responsibility for how we feel and also share the impact of our partner’s behavior, which allows both partners’ experiences to be valid and sends the message that it’s safe to bring up concerns without fear of being invalidated.
Inquire instead of accuse.
It’s easy to assume we know what our partner is thinking, but often we actually miss the mark.
Inquiring comes from a place of openness and curiosity, while accusing comes from a place of assumptions and judgment.
When we inquire, we send the message that we are seeking to connect through understanding, while when we accuse, we send the message that we know best which generally results in misunderstanding and disconnection.
The more we inquire instead of accuse, the more likely it is that our partner will feel that it’s safe to open up to us.
It can be helpful to remember this principle: you don’t know what your partner is thinking or feeling unless you ask them and they tell you so.
Avoid absolute language.
Couples commonly use absolute language when they’re upset.
Here are some examples:
“You never buy me flowers.”
“You never listen.”
“You always criticize me.”
Absolute language is pretty much never accurate. Humans live on a continuum, and absolute language denies the nuances of being human.
In relationships, absolute language is unproductive because it tends to put us on the defensive.
If you say, “You never buy me flowers,” your partner will likely quickly respond defensively, “I bought you flowers for our anniversary last year!”
Not only does this escalate the conflict, but it doesn’t resolve the initial complaint, which is that she would like to receive flowers more often.
Consider this reframe:“I loved the flowers you gave me for our anniversary last year. It’d mean a lot to me if you’d do that more often.”
It starts with a compliment to gain buy-in from the partner, and then clearly sets out the request.
Some couples are reluctant to be this straightforward because it requires vulnerability to ask for something they want and risk not getting it.
But when both partners work to give this kind of direct feedback, they’re acknowledging that it’s safe to express their wants and needs in the relationship which enhances the couple’s connection.
Listen to understand, not to convince.
Couples often fall into the relationship trap of trying to convince the other that their way of thinking is correct. This leads to disconnection in the relationship and feeling like it’s unsafe to share their thoughts.
Instead, when we listen to understand our partner’s perspective, we allow ourselves to become open to the possibility of new ideas and increase our connection with our partners by allowing them to feel heard and understood.
Know and use your self-soothe tools.
During difficult conversations, it’s common for us to become emotionally charged, and we can become flooded. If you aren’t familiar with this term, flooded means that we are so overwhelmed by our emotions that they drive the conversation. And when emotions drive, we are much more likely to react impulsively instead of thoughtfully.
When both partners have awareness of their emotional limits and have coping skills to deal with their emotions, each feels safe to bring up issues without fear that their partner won’t be able to emotionally tolerate the conversation.
Give positive feedback through genuine compliments, validation, gratitude, and empathy.
Your relationship will improve if you generally live by this rule: for every negative interaction you have with your partner, make sure there are five positive ones.
As a relationship goes on, there’s often a correlating decline in positive feedback. But this aspect of a relationship is essential to maintaining and supporting emotional safety within the relationship.
The more we organically notice and acknowledge the things we appreciate, enjoy, and admire in our partner, the more easily they will be able to tolerate our negative feedback, and vice versa.
Practice grace and compassion with yourself and your partner.
This is a fact: Both you and your partner will mess up.
When we accept this and allow ourselves and our partner to be imperfect, we create the space to talk about those mistakes, learn from them, and grow.
Compassion also sends the messages that it’s okay to be as you are and that showing up authentically is welcomed in the relationship. This, in turn, draws a couple closer to each other, knowing that they are fully accepted and won’t be judged for their mistakes or shortcomings.
Encourage and support each other in personal growth.
Emotional safety requires a willingness to go inward. The better we know ourselves, understand our triggers, and learn how to effectively cope, the more we are going to be able to hold space for our partner to be who they are, express issues as they arise, and feel comfortable sharing their experiences.
Acceptance of ourselves and each other just as we are is critical to emotional safety, as it’s hard to create the space for change when we come from a place of criticism and judgment.
Of course humans aren’t perfect, so we won’t do any of these things perfectly. All we can do is to try our best and remember that we are capable of growing in who we are and in our relationship if we try.